Can Addiction Affect Learning and Memory?

Learning and Memory Issues

In an article from The American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers explain that addiction represents a pathological takeover of the neural mechanisms responsible for learning and memory. Under normal circumstances, these behaviors contribute to our ability to survive; we remember what is dangerous, learn from our mistakes, and identify cues that indicate threats. For individuals who have gone down the path of substance use, these pathways have been sabotaged. Today on the blog, we’ll describe the ways in which addiction affects learning and memory.

Drug-Seeking Behavior Explained

Experts define addiction as continued, compulsive drug use in spite of negative consequences. This progressive disease forces the sufferer to obtain, use, and recover from drugs over an increasing percentage of the time. This pattern of behavior is uniquely persistent; it continues even when a person can no longer maintain a career, deep relationships, or their physical health. While some people can stop using drugs or alcohol on their own, many people struggle to overcome this chronic, relapsing condition without outside intervention.

The average person may not understand how significantly the brain is affected by prolonged substance use. They may assume that simply keeping someone away from their drug of choice is enough to stop using. In reality, the risk of relapse – usually triggered by drug-associated cues – is very high, even after the last withdrawal symptom has ended. Why is this?

Put simply, drugs and alcohol hijack the brain’s reward system. Positively reinforced behaviors, like finding food and shelter, increase the likelihood of health and safety over time. The brain learns that these activities have a positive outcome, and we become more likely to do these things in the future. Addictive substances elicit these same behavioral patterns by taking over the brain’s reward system. Drugs are sought in pursuit of perceived positive outcomes, but as people become increasingly reliant on these substances, the drive to find drugs or alcohol becomes larger than all other needs and responsibilities. People suffering from addiction may commit crimes, neglect children, and forget to eat for long periods of time.

Addiction also affects other portions of your mental faculties in the long term, including learning and memory.

How Addiction Affects Your Ability to Learn

Because addiction takes over your brain’s pathways for learning and memory, chronic drug exposure can lead to lasting changes in the circuits underlying normal learning processes. These complications are especially pronounced in young people. College students and high school students are at greatest risk, since the brain doesn’t finish developing until the age of 25. Drug or alcohol use can significantly impact the growing brain.

When young people use drugs, it interferes with the normal movements of neurotransmitters. These chemicals are responsible for taking messages from one part of the brain to another. Drugs’ chemical structures imitate those of neurotransmitters, which can result in messages going in the wrong direction, resetting the way the brain thinks and reacts.

Research shows a link between teen substance use and school performance. Young people who abuse drugs have a higher rate of absence from school, lower grades, and an increased potential for dropping out of school.

For example, students who smoke marijuana may experience reduced IQ and worsened ability to learn. Addiction distracts you and affects your ability to concentrate. One-third of dropouts indicate that their substance use was an important contributing factor in their decision to leave school. However, this isn’t the full extent of how addiction can affect learning and memory.

Can Addiction Cause Amnesia?

Excessive and chronic substance use can be a cause of memory loss. For example, smoking reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain, worsening your ability to form and recollect memories. Additionally, illegal drugs can change chemicals in the brain, which can make it hard to recall memories. These side effects are most commonly experienced due to the misuse of anti-anxiety drugs, alcohol, and opioids.

Facts about drug-induced amnesia:

  • Even when taken as directed, some prescription drugs may list memory loss as a side effect. These include benzodiazepines, cholesterol-lowering drugs, sleep aids, and antiseizure medications.
  • Individuals who use opioids have experienced memory loss lasting up to a year.
  • Heavy drinkers who experience “blackouts” have undergone one of the most common forms of drug-induced amnesia.

The more often a person misuses drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to experience issues with learning and memory loss. These can be short- or long-term in nature. If a person continues to use these substances in spite of these significant side effects, we strongly recommend that they receive professional treatment. With appropriate intervention, recovery is possible.

Find Support and Healing from Addiction

At Cumberland Heights, we understand the complex reactions which addiction can cause. Our team of experts is equipped to help you to leave substance use behind. It is our goal to provide evidence-based treatment that garners real results. To learn more about our residential and outpatient programs, contact us today.